Andrew Rothman, Migratory Bird Director, American Bird Conservancy
In 2020, Partners in Flight celebrates its 30th Anniversary
and is dedicating its “conservation news” to sharing stories of migratory connectivity and connections to celebrate 30 years of partnerships for bird conservation. We hope you enjoy.
I’m not sure my 8th grade Home Economics teacher would have ever thought that I would have a job in the sewing business. On one hand she was right, I can sew a patch as good as, well…an 8th grader. On the other hand, it turns out that conserving migratory birds is a lot like sewing! As the Migratory Bird Program Director at American Bird Conservancy (ABC), part of my job is to stitch together bird science and conservation action, Latin American partners and funding sources, and site-based conservation projects with hemispheric initiatives. Those are just some of the complicated and important components to be pieced together to effect successful bird conservation at a large scale.
As Partners in Flight (PIF) turns 30 years old in 2020, ABC is also celebrating its 25th anniversary. Together, ABC and other members of PIF have been working to sew migratory bird research and conservation together for multiple decades now. PIF and ABC have helped identify migratory bird species of greatest conservation need, and have helped to pull together the best science on migration, threats, and population dynamics with those doing conservation work in the field.
As we continue to look at our changing world and the evolving threats to migratory birds, we must find new solutions to the complex problems that birds face in the 21st century. The public has traditionally seen conservation as just “protection”. While creating and managing protected areas like parks, reserves, and refuges is critically important to sustain bird populations, there is more to migratory bird conservation than that. In part, this is because birds are not confined to protected areas. There are migratory birds in your backyard, in coffee and cacao plantations, in timber plantations, and even in pastures where cows roam in place of bison. As such, the “management” of all these habitats can play a factor in the success of migratory birds, and their ability to find healthy habitats to nest in, successfully raise young, and survive lengthy migrations.
Dr. Peter Marra’s work on American Redstarts in Jamaica has helped to show that the quality of habitat on the wintering grounds is directly linked to annual survival and reproductive success. Similarly, we know habitat conditions on the breeding grounds impact nesting success, fledging success, and the ability for migrants to have sufficient fat reserves to complete their migration.
Because of this, and the fact birds don’t stay within the borders of protected areas, our work requires more than ensuring that key sites are protected. We also must improve the ways people manage habitats outside of protected areas; this means engaging with loggers, farmers, and ranchers. ABC and other members of PIF are working to develop management practices and recommendations to make logging, agriculture, ranching and other industries more friendly for birds. Those practices however, can potentially impact the bottom line for businesses, large and small, and these economic considerations need to be understood and incorporated into business models.
For example, we can continue to encourage coffee producers in Latin America to include native tree species in their coffee plantations to improve them for birds. However, we also need to understand and consider how increased shade is going to impact the production on a small farm, which relates to a producer’s ability to feed their family. And if the producer does take steps to manage his production in a way that can be better for birds, how do we ensure the producer can get a better price (i.e., incentive) for their coffee (or cacao, etc)? Alternatively, what happens when the global coffee price falls to the point where the costs of producing coffee are more than what can be generated by the sale of the coffee, as has been the case recently in the Sierra de Agalta in Honduras?
Here at ABC, working with the National Agricultural University, Wildlife Conservation Society, Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) and others, we have discovered that people who had been coffee farmers are converting their coffee farms into pastures or short-term agriculture, which are less desirable habitats for migratory birds. In the Dominican town of Polo, the same story is told. The town, previously one of the Dominican Republic’s most important coffee-producing areas, is near Bahoruco National Park, one of the most important protected areas on the Island of Hispaniola. This area was hit hard by two coffee diseases and coffee production has recently tanked, leading to the loss of coffee production and subsequently, bird habitat, demonstrating a clear economic driver of bird habitat loss.
To reverse this trend our network of scientists, biologists, and conservationists will have to expand to sew in the economic part of the equation that most biologists lack the experience and professional expertise to do. Financial support for producers who take risks to try new practices will be needed; as is understanding market and product supply-chains. Startup capital for bird-friendly pilot projects is needed. Because of this, we will have to engage economists, product distributors, marketers and even investors to find a way to ensure that businesses can thrive, doing things in a way that is good for both birds and people. This requires new stitches for bird science and conservation, understanding the economics of bird conservation and finding ways to incorporate bird conservation into business models. As we look to the next thirty years of PIF, it will be necessary that our networks include a greater diversity of partners who can reach beyond our traditional patterns and sectors, sewing new ideas together for the betterment of both society and the environment.
We may not realize it but birds already connect us; to our food, our paper products, our recreation, our lifestyles, our communities. As we further our bird conservation networks, weaving our net more tightly to avoid birds from “falling through the cracks”, I look forward to discovering new ways that birds connect us all together.